I was having a girls' night out at a local pub recently. At the next table was a group of women - and one very new, very loudly crying baby.
'That takes me back,' I said.
Conversation faltered. None of us - all mums of teenagers - could concentrate on what we were saying. Tiny babies cry in a way that demands attention. That's their job.
'I think,' said a friend who never shies away from controversy, 'she should take the baby home.'
If you're the mum of a new baby, you desperately need to get out of the house. If it's your first baby, you've recently swapped an independent adult life for sleepless nights, a saggy tummy and a growing certainty that your world has been turned upside-down. A night out restores your sanity. And if you're breastfeeding, or you haven't got a partner at home, your baby has to come too.
Tiny babies can sleep through anything. My best friend's Dad died soon after my daughter was born, and I took her to the funeral, in a sling under my black coat. She didn't open her eyes once - even at the wake afterwards. But tiny babies also cry. You do everything you can think of - feed them, change them, wind them, rock them, talk to them - and they still cry. They cry at home. They cry in the supermarket. And if you're in a pub, they'll cry there, too.
In the UK, we don't like seeing children in public places (unless they are in places specifically set up to make money out of them, like theme parks or fast food restaurants). Hotels and b&bs often say they don't take children under 12, and you'll even get wedding invitations that exclude them. In a recent survey, 74% of 1,000 UK business travellers said that what annoyed them most about first-class airline travel was children. There was a rush of comment and calls for childfree zones on planes.
I think this is a bit sad. Other people's kids can, of course, be dead annoying. But I think building up a blanket intolerance to any sector of the population - old people, sick people, large people, smelly people, people who talk loudly into mobile phones - is, quite frankly, dangerous. You could end up with the only acceptable class of people being rich, white, male and under 50 - and look what happens when they get in power. We should also remember that we, too, were once screaming babies, demanding toddlers and children with disgustingly sticky fingers. So we should probably squash our feelings of irritation when the under-10s are loud or gross on trains or planes (because we all have to travel), in restaurants (because we all have to eat) or at weddings and funerals (because these are social occasions that involve the whole family).
But there are times when parents should minimise the distress their child is causing to other people. You can't grab your toddler and step off a plane mid-flight. But you can take her out of a film if she's talking in such a loud voice that no one else can hear. You can't always stop a three-year-old boy running round a shop shouting. But you can step in if he's thwacking someone else's shin with a stick.
What goes around comes around. If you miss your cousin's wedding vows because you've had to take your screaming baby out of the church at the crucial moment, you hope that one day someone will remove their yelling toddler from the school hall just as your five-year-old takes to the stage and says her one line as a violently pink shrimp.
Do as you would be done by, as the old saying goes. Treat other people with consideration and, with a bit of luck, they'll do the same.
But that night in the pub, whose needs were greater? The new mum desperate for a taste of normal life, or a group of old friends in need of a serious gossip? How hard is it to put up with a bit of noise on a girls' night out? When my friend said, 'That baby needs to be back home tucked up in bed', we all nodded with pious expressions, as if concerned about the baby's welfare. But we were, in fact, being completely selfish. The baby was probably going to cry whether she was in the pub or in her cot. The setting didn't make much difference. What we really meant was, 'That baby needs to be back home so that we can hear ourselves speak.'
Should the baby's mum have cut her losses, said goodbye to her friends and gone home? Or should we have taken a deep breath, ordered another drink and stopped whingeing?
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